England: Reading, Cathedral Cities, The Old Farm House, Birmingham & Bath

As our 90 day stay in the Schengen area was coming to an end, we planned our escape from France' Loire Valley to England. We discovered that it was possible to fly from Nantes directly across the English Channel to Southampton on England's southern coast, so we soon devised an itinerary for exploring the south western counties.

Our choice for our initial stop was Reading, which offered a plethora of railway connections and the most reasonable accommodations in the whole region. Although Reading does not consider itself a big visitor attraction (there is no Visitor Information Centre) we soon discovered that it's a vital, thriving town with plenty of historic buildings, shopping galore, good bus service, and natural world connections with the Thames flowing through. We stayed two weeks!

The city has a population of 160,000, a nice size. In the centre there are several pedestrian streets lined with plenty of shops and stores, plus The Oracle, a major enclosed mall right in the middle. At first, the architecture of the historic buldings seemed rather ostentatious to us. Several colors of brick, predominately grey and red with cream and black accents, were common, including the Town Hall and the complex that was our hotel. After a bit, we began to find it pleasing! Reading's population is quite diverse so there are ethnic cafes and restaurants galore in addition to many pubs offering a selection of English ales plus lagers on draught. Many offered hearty pub food, too. Order at the bar.

Our hotel was located in a quiet neighborhood a bit outside the centre, but with food shops, a nice pub and an excellent Indian restaurant nearby. Frequent buses enabled us to travel easily into the centre and to the railway station for our daytrips to nearby sites (see below). Life was good in Reading. We began to wonder whether we might consider living here?

One of our major tasks while in Reading was to plan our further travels. Meanwhile, we had received an invitation to house-sit for the daughter of a classmate of Blair's. The house was an old farm house outside the village of Hungerford, not far from Reading. Life there would take a major shift of mindset to a more rural lifestyle, but after some due consideration we accepted this amazing offer (more on this below)!

While exploring the sights and culture of Reading, we took day trips to Oxford, Salisbury, and Winchester, all not far away by train.

The world famous university town draws visitors from everywhere! Coaches roll in and groups of folks follow their guides while others wander snapping pictures in all directions. Just outside the Information Centre, we were offered a free tour of the colleges and we accepted. Matthew turned out to be a great story teller as he lead us through the quadrangle of Balliol College and on to Sheldonian Theatre, an early creation of Christopher Wren, where graduation ceremonies are held (picture at right). We continued to the Bodelian Library and on along Broad Street, admiring the architectural gems in all directions!

Following our tour and lunch in Brown's Cafe in the Covered Market, we headed to Christchurch College to walk through these hallowed halls, including the grand dining hall, made famous as the Hogwarts dining hall, now set with long tables set for a meal. The walls are thickly hung with portraits of important people that had been students there, including King Henry VIII above the head table. Continuing, the quadrangle's green lawn is off limits to visitors but we did walk on through the library, visited the chapel, and returned to the gardens.

We learned that the colleges provide living accommodations plus library and study space. Lectures are given in separate halls by the Oxford University lecturers and students from a mix of colleges attend each lecture. Thus enlightened, we returned to the station to ride home.

Old Sarum and Salisbury
On two day trips, we visited the archaeological site of Old Sarum and the Cathedral City of Salisbury. These visits enabled us to connect the two places and to understand the whole history of Salisbury Plain from the Iron Age until to today, including a special exhibition of an original copy of the Magna Carta, 800 years old this year!
To read our story, click here

Another Cathedral City, Winchester, offered a nice day out to visit the cathedral, It is one of the largest cathedrals in England, with the longest nave and greatest overall length of any Gothic cathedral in Europe. We admired the graceful west facade and the incredibly long nave supported by flying buttresses. A closure due to a graduation prevented us from a real tour of the interior but we were able to do a quick walk through late in the afternoon to experience the massive extent of the nave, the scenes of the windows, and some of the artwork.

The city was delightful with a fine array of medieval buildings, an old mill, still working, a fun city museum with a model of the town, and shops and pubs, of course!

Our Stay in Hungerford
After our two weeks enjoying life in Reading, it was time to move to our house-sit in Hungerford. Our home for the next five weeks was an old farm house in the community of Lower Denford, a short distance from town. While there we enjoyed life in the English countryside and also made plans for our onward travels.
Click here to read the story of our stay.

On to Birmingham and Bath
When the family returned, we said farewell with a bit of sadness and traveled by train to Birmingham. With its population of just over a million with another 2.5 million in the metro area, this was a big change from tiny Hungerford! We experienced a level of redevelopment and renewal nearly beyond imagination. This is a city working hard to revive itself into the 21th century, seeking to restore the historic architecture of an earlier time while embracing avant-guard architecture to reflect an innovative vision of itself. Side trips to nearby Cadbury World and the University of Birmingham added perspective to this transition.

From there, a short train ride took us to Bath, a city that celebrates its historic architecture and shuns modernity, where the gift of eternal hot springs has lured people to seek comfort and cures for ailments of all sorts since Roman times! The Roman bath complex, right in the city centre, remains nearly intact, enabling visitors to imagine what the Romans experienced. From there, the famed Georgian architecture, built of the classic ivory colored Bath stone, is all within walking distance.

As we spend time in England we continually ask ourselves if we might consider a longer stay here. We have found many of the cities we have visited to be very comfortable and people are friendly. Being able to speak English (even with our American accent) is definitely a plus! At the same time, while the weather has been perhaps typical for an 'English summer', the continuous cool temperatures and recurring rain has us wondering whether we could really enjoy life here. We shall see.

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